What are we to make of Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett’s membership in the charismatic Christian group People of Praise? On Tuesday, journalists reported that Barrett had lived for a time in the home of one of the group’s founders while a law student in South Bend, Indiana, and that she was as recently as 2010 a “handmaid,” the official title formerly given to the religious organization’s women leaders, one changed after leaders belatedly realized the dangers of a comparison to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.
Barrett hasn’t spoken publicly much about her involvement in People of Praise, and there are good arguments for why her religious beliefs shouldn’t be a focus of her upcoming confirmation hearing—one of which is that conservatives are hoping that’s exactly what happens. But given her seemingly prominent role in a group that believes women should submit to the authority of men and whose former members have reported being kicked out for being gay as well as being denied contraceptives, it’s worthy of examination.
Taken in tandem with her record as an appeals court judge, the ways her religious beliefs intersect with her judicial worldview is another way of understanding what kind of world she’s interested in building, and the way she’ll interpret law on the bench. Because to run with the Handmaid’s Tale analogy, Barrett isn’t a Handmaid—she’s more of an Aunt, a woman who is not only perfectly happy to use her position of power to enforce patriarchal norms and ideals but who can, by very dint of her femininity, give it a conservative feminist gloss.
Barrett’s anti-abortion views are well-documented, and she’s been pushing to overturn Roe v. Wade for years. If her past statements don’t make her beliefs clear, in 2006 while a law professor, she added her name to an ad run by an extreme anti-abortion group that called for “an end to the barbaric legacy of Roe v. Wade and restore law that protects the lives of unborn children.” Beyond Roe v. Wade, her rulings as an appeals court judge display her willingness to endorse strategies from extreme anti-abortion activists meant to chip away at reproductive rights, including her support for laws requiring the cremation and burial of fetal remains. Her regressive anti-feminism extends further than abortion rights—in a decision she authored last year that, as the Washington Post put it, “made it easier for students accused of sexual assault to challenge universities’ handling of their cases,” Barrett asserted that men accused of campus sexual assault face discrimination because they are men.
But Barrett’s dangerous ideology isn’t limited to only issues narrowly cast as feminist concerns—she’s no friend to workers, an arena not typically thought of as a feminist one, but one that is foundational to women’s lives. Via In These Times:
In employment cases that Barrett has seen, she has adopted largely anti-worker — and on two occasions, racially discriminatory — positions. In 2017, Barrett voted not to re-hear U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Autozone, in which a three-judge panel ruled in favor of an Autozone which had segregated its stores based on race. In a 2019 case, she ruled against a Black Illinois Department of Transportation worker who had alleged that his firing was racially-motivated, given racist verbal harassment he experienced on the job. And this year, Barrett ruled that GrubHub drivers could not file a class action lawsuit against their employer — a blow to workers in the rapidly expanding gig economy.
It’s impossible to know how much her judicial rulings are influenced by her religious beliefs, but it’s easy to see that her vision of the world is one that aligns with that of the religious right. It’s not a coincidence that Barrett is closely aligned with groups like the Alliance Defending Freedom, speaking several times at an ADF program meant to bring a “distinctly Christian worldview in every area of law.” If given a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court, Barrett will be given the power to codify her beliefs, with disastrous implications. As Melissa Gira Grant wrote at the New Republic, “All of these attacks should be more broadly understood as the court rewriting the legal underpinnings of women’s rights, in service of remaking what a woman is: when and how or if she can parent, where and for how much she can work, what or what little autonomy she can have.” Her goal is nothing more than to take us back in time to, as New York magazine’s Sarah Jones put it, “an older and more exclusionary version of America.”
And that version of America is, distinctly, a conservative Christian one. As the South Bend Tribune reported, Barrett “signed a 2015 letter to bishops that affirmed the ‘teachings of the Church as truth,’” including the “value of human life from conception to natural death” and family values “founded on the indissoluble commitment of a man and a woman.” In a 2006 commencement speech she gave at Notre Dame’s law school, Barrett made it clear that she saw the law as a means to “building the kingdom of God”:
I’m just going to identify one way in which I hope that you, as graduates of Notre Dame, will fulfill the promise of being a different kind of lawyer. And that is this: that you will always keep in mind that your legal career is but a means to an end, and as Father Jenkins told you this morning, that end is building the kingdom of God. You know the same law, are charged with maintaining the same ethical standards, and will be entering the same kinds of legal jobs as your peers across the country. But if you can keep in mind that your fundamental purpose in life is not to be a lawyer, but to know, love, and serve God, you truly will be a different kind of lawyer.
Barrett has claimed in the past, including at her prior confirmation hearing, that her religious beliefs will have no bearing on her judicial decisions. In a 2019 talk she gave at Notre Dame, she stated that “[p]eople have a fundamental misunderstanding of the judicial role,” adding, “If you think the judge will be imposing their policy preferences, it leads to an all-in takedown.”
But of course that’s what judges do—impose their policy preferences. If Barrett is confirmed, she’ll join a court that is already largely aligned with her conservative vision–a woman already anointed the Glorious ACB and turned into a rightwing feminist icon. And she’ll happily wield that power to take away rights and agency from other women who, unlike her, have received none of the supposed benefits of submission.